detail from Labels for Hair Ribbons by Manuel Ocampo a delectable selection of oriental appetizers
Monday, August 27, 2001

: . A Politics of Failure:

Subcomandante Marcos with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Roberto Pombo

Excerpts from ‘The Punch Card and the Hourglass,’ the transcript of an interview with Subcomandante Marcos conducted by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Roberto Pombo. You can read the rest in the print version of May/June 2001 issue of The New Left Review or, if you understand Spanish, you can read the full text online in the Gabo-owned Revista Cambio. Passages from the interview, which delve into more literary matters, have been reprinted in The Nation under the title ‘A Zapatista Reading List.’

What is most remarkable about Subcomandante Marcos’ politics is that it anticipates its very own disintegration and celebrates this disintegration to come as a productive force from which other movements could spring.

    How military is your movement, and how would you describe the war in which you have been fighting?

    We were formed in an army, the EZLN. It has a military structure. Subcomandante Marcos is the military chief of an army. But our army is very different from others, because its proposal is to cease being an army. A soldier is an absurd person who has to resort to arms in order to convince others, and in that sense the movement has no future if its future is military. If the EZLN perpetuates itself as an armed military structure, it is headed for failure. Failure as an alternative set of ideas, an alternative attitude to the world. The worst that could happen to it, apart from that, would be to come to power and install itself there as a revolutionary army. For us it would be a failure. What would be success for the politico-military organizations of the sixties or seventies which emerged with the national liberation movements would be a fiasco for us. We have seen that such victories proved in the end to be failures, or defeats, hidden behind the mask of success. That what always remained unresolved was the role of the people, of civil society, in what became ultimately a dispute between two hegemonies. There is an oppressor power which decides on behalf of society from above, and a group of visionaries which decides to lead the country on the correct path and ousts the other group from power, seizes power and then also decides on behalf of society. For us that is a struggle between hegemonies, in which the winners are good and the losers bad, but for the rest of society things don’t basically change. The EZLN has reached a point where it has been overtaken by Zapatismo. The ‘E’ in the acronym has shrunk, its hands have been tied, so that for us it is no handicap to mobilize unarmed, but rather in a certain sense a relief. The gun-belt weighs less than before and the military paraphernalia an group necessarily wears when it enters dialogue with people also feels less heavy. You cannot reconstruct the world or society, nor rebuild national states now in ruins, on the basis of a quarrel over who will impose their hegemony on society. The world in general, and Mexican society in particular, is composed of different kinds of people, and the relations between them have to be founded on respect and tolerance, things which appear in none of the discourses of the politico-military organizations of the sixties and seventies. Reality, as always, presented a bill to the armed national liberation movements of those days, and the cost of settling it has been very high.

    You also seem to differ from the traditional Left in the social sectors that you represent. Is that so?

    Broadly speaking, there are two major gaps in the movement of the revolutionary Left in Latin America. One of them was the indigenous peoples, from whose ranks we come, and the other was the supposed minorities. Even if we all removed our balaclavas we would not be a minority in the same way that homosexuals, lesbians, transexuals are. These sectors were not simply excluded by the discourses of the Latin American Left of those decades—and still current today—but the theoretical framework of what was then Marxism-Leninism disregarded them, indeed took them to be part of the front to be eliminated. Homosexuals, for example, were suspect as potential traitors, elements to the socialist movement and state. While the indigenous peoples were viewed as a backward sector preventing the forces of production…blah, blah, blah. So what was required was to clean out these elements, imprisoning and re-educating some, and assimilating others into the process of production, to transform them into skilled labor—proletarians, to put it in those terms.

    Guerrillas normally speak in the name of majorities. It seems surprising that you speak in the name of minorities, when you could do so in the name of the poor or exploited of Mexico as a whole. Why do you do this?

    Every vanguard imagines itself to be representative of the majority. We not only think that is false in our case, but that even in the best of cases it is little more than wishful thinking, and in the worst cases an outright usurpation. The moment social forces come into play, it becomes clear that the vanguard is not such a vanguard and that those it represents do not recognize themselves in it. The EZLN, in renouncing any claim to be a vanguard, is recognizing its real horizon. To believe that we can speak on behalf of those beyond ourselves is political masturbation. In some cases it is not even that, because there is no pleasure in this onanism—at most, that of pamphlets read only by those who produce them. We are trying to be honest with ourselves and some might say this is a matter of human decency. No. We could even be cynical and say that the honest admission that we only represent the indigenous Zapatista communities of one region of the Mexican South-East has paid off. But our discourse has reached the ears of many more people than those we represent. This is the point we have reached. That’s all. In the speeches we made in the course of our march to the capital, we told people—and ourselves—that we could not and should not lead struggles we encountered on our journey, or fly the flag for them. We had imagined that those below would not be slow to show themselves, with so many injustices, so many complaints, so many wounds…In our minds we had formed an image that our march would be a kind of plough, turning the soil so that all this could rise to the ground. We had to be honest and tell people that we had not come to lead anything of what might emerge. We came to release a demand, that could unleash others. But that’s another story.

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